When Sacha Baron Cohen, now famous everywhere as Borat, collected his Golden Globe last week as the best actor in a comedy, Jews everywhere asked each other a familiar question: "But is it good for the Jews?"
Jews who laugh with Borat, the wild and crazy journalist who satirized anti-Semitism in the movie "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," think he's the Jewish counterpart of Archie Bunker, the lovable bigot in a sitcom of yesteryear. But other Jews think Borat fans the fires under the stew of prejudice and fanaticism always ready to boil on a back burner.
Columnist Charles Krauthammer, observing how easily Borat taught the lyrics of his "Throw the Jew Down the Well" to an astonished audience in an Arizona tavern, accuses him of looking for anti-Semitism in the wrong places: "Can a man that smart . . . really believe that indifference to anti-Semitism and the road to the Holocaust are to be found in a country and western bar in Tucson?"
But that may not be the point. Borat shows how easy it is to tap into prejudice, to lure a man to express bias openly when he thinks he's in friendly territory. On the day Cohen won the Golden Globe, The New York Times Sunday magazine profiled Abraham Foxman, the director of the Anti-Defamation League, who is often accused of looking for anti-Semites under every bed like those who imagined communists were lurking everywhere in the 1950s.
But that's not the point, either. A cursory examination of anti-Semitism over the centuries shows how swiftly bigotry can show itself once Jews -- or anyone who decries it -- let down their guard. Although Foxman frets that unsophisticated moviegoers will find Cohen's "comedic technique" encouragement for their bigotry, the ADL nevertheless defends his unmasking of the absurd and irrational side of anti-Semitism.
Foxman's own story, as he describes it in his book, "Never Again: The Threat of the New Anti-Semitism," is instructive. When his parents were forced into a ghetto in Vilna, Lithuania, during War World II, they put the infant Abraham in the care of an uneducated Christian nanny, a warm and devoted protector whom he came to love as a mother. But he also learned from her the secret prejudices that can be hidden in a "good person."
In his nanny's care, the little boy learned to spit at a Jew in the street, to mock him as a "dirty Jew." He remembers now the warmth at her hearth and bosom, but she unwittingly gave him the cold, critical eye he casts toward bigotry now.